Fox has pushed COVID propaganda for two years. The cost has been staggering.
Fox News, the propaganda arm of the Republican Party, has lied to its audience throughout the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic – first for partisan political gain, then for ideological reasons, and finally for ratings and money. There is no way to avoid the conclusion that the network has been killing its viewers.
On February 27, 2020 -- two days after a top federal health official warned that COVID-19 was approaching worldwide spread and could have a “severe” impact on the United States -- Fox star Sean Hannity tried to emphasize then-President Donald Trump’s brilliant handling of the nascent pandemic. “Today, thankfully, zero people in the United States of America have died from the coronavirus. Zero,” he said, as an on-screen graphic hammered home that figure. “Now, let's put this into perspective,” Hannity continued. “In 2017, 61,000 people in this country died from influenza, the flu. Common flu. And around 100 people die every single day from car wrecks.”
Nearly two years later, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 stands at nearly 950,000, with more than 100,000 dead since the start of 2022 alone. Fox’s coverage drove an untold number of those tragic losses.
Fox had a unique moral responsibility as the virus spread across the globe. The network spent decades instructing its viewers not to trust reporting from other news sources. Its success ensured that the resulting ratings would make its stars and top executives millionaires and its owners phenomenally wealthy. It counted the president of the United States as one of its most fervent viewers, giving the network’s on-air talent unrivaled influence over the workings of the federal government.
When the pandemic struck, Fox’s propagandists could have used their coverage to help their viewers protect themselves from the deadly virus, and their influence to keep an erratic president on track in a moment of crisis. Instead, they betrayed their audience and inflamed Trump.
First, Fox tried to bolster Trump’s political standing by telling its viewers – and the president – that the virus was nothing to worry about. When Americans started dying and that position became untenable, Fox pivoted to decrying the measures taken to stop the pandemic on the grounds that they were too damaging to the economy – and to propping up purported miracle cures for the virus that didn’t actually work. And as safe, miraculously effective vaccines were rolled out across the country, Fox’s biggest stars prioritized their ratings, warning viewers that the shots were dangerous and didn’t work, and that requiring them was tyrannical.
This coverage had a significant indirect impact on how the U.S. would come to grapple with the virus. Trump treated the network's hosts as trusted advisors and made federal policy in response to their statements, and the pandemic was no exception. And Fox's slant gave ambitious Republican officeholders across the country a strong incentive to dismantle their states' pandemic safety measures as quickly as possible.
But Fox’s coverage also had a direct, deadly impact on how its audience responded to the pandemic. As the network's stars downplayed the risk posed by the virus and told their viewers that vaccines were ineffective and dangerous while other drugs were miraculous cures, polls and other data suggest that some of those viewers ended up treating the pandemic less seriously and taking the drugs that didn't work rather than the vaccines that did. Two years into the pandemic, the result is drastically higher death tolls in Republican areas of the country.
Fox executives – led by Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch and Suzanne Scott – take the pandemic very seriously for themselves and their employees, putting an array of safety measures in place at the network’s headquarters, including strict vaccine and testing requirements. But they do not care how many deaths their programming causes, as long as the network’s ratings keep the money rolling in.
In recent weeks, as various pandemic two-year-anniversaries have passed, the network’s hosts have been laser-focused north of the border, devoting more than 20 hours of coverage to Canadian truckers and their allies who blockaded international crossings and besieged that nation’s capital city in pursuit of an end to vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 safety measures. In the weeks to come, they will likely turn their attention to promoting similar actions in the United States if those become viable.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 death toll will continue to rise.
Inventing the coronavirus “hoax”
President Donald Trump signaled that he had the situation in hand as the coronavirus spread from where it was first identified in Wuhan, China, to dozens of other countries, including the United States, in the early weeks of 2020. While then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was sounding the alarm about how the nation was unprepared for a pandemic, Trump stressed the small number of U.S. cases in his public statements and mused that the virus would “[go] away in April with the heat,” even as he privately acknowledged the danger posed by the virus. His Fox propagandists nodded along, praising what then-Fox Business host Lou Dobbs described as the “amazing job” Trump's administration was doing “in constraining the spread of the virus into this country.”
Then on February 25, 2020, top CDC official Dr. Nancy Messonnier publicly warned of potentially “severe” disruptions and urged U.S. schools and businesses to make plans to shut down. Stock markets swooned in response as investors worried about the impact of a global pandemic. But Trump heard a very different message while tuning in to his favorite Fox shows as he returned from an international trip that night. His trusted confidants Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham explained on their programs that Democrats and the press were “politicizing tragedy,” using the coronavirus as a “new pathway for hitting President Trump.” The next day, Trump adopted their message on Twitter and during a press conference.
This feedback loop fueled Fox’s coverage of the pandemic – and Trump’s lax response to it – over the next several weeks, as the network’s stars minimized the risk the disease posed in order to provide political cover to their beloved president. Fox personalities falsely claimed the virus was no worse than the flu, a significantly less deadly, less contagious virus for which there are known vaccines and treatments. They also frequently suggested that Trump’s foes were exaggerating the risk for political gain, with then-Fox Business host Trish Regan earning notoriety for an unhinged rant in which she said Trump’s enemies had deployed the coronavirus as “yet another attempt to impeach the president.” Trump listened to them, reportedly scorning public health planning, shunning aides who came to him with negative information about the virus, and continuing to publicly downplay the risk.
Then – briefly – everything changed. Trump, partly in response to counsel he had received from Tucker Carlson, adopted a “newly somber tone” and took action. He declared a national emergency to deal with the pandemic on March 13, 2020. Three days later, the White House released coronavirus guidelines, urging Americans to stay home, avoid unnecessary travel, and refrain from social gatherings to slow the spread of the virus. Fox’s own tone shifted sharply as its on-air talent began describing the pandemic as a “crisis” and social distancing on the network’s sets.
But the damage to the network’s audience had already been done. Poll after poll from that time period revealed that Fox’s viewers were taking the pandemic less seriously than people who get their news from other sources, and that they believed the press had exaggerated the risk the virus posed. One Republican pollster reportedly considered the situation so dire that he warned GOP leaders that the network’s coverage was endangering the lives of the party’s base voters by influencing them not to take steps to protect themselves from the virus.
Fox went into defense mode as critics accurately pointed out that its coronavirus coverage was getting its viewers killed. Fox spokesperson Irena Briganti decried the “cherry picking of clips from our opinion programs” by other outlets, while Hannity threatened to sue the “media mob” for the criticism of his coverage. Fox offered up a scapegoat, benching and then cutting ties with Regan over her “impeach the president” screed.
There were no major changes to Fox’s programming, however, with the network’s brass either unable or unwilling to rein in its biggest stars. By the end of March 2020, its coronavirus coverage was once again overflowing with conspiracy theories and pro-Trump propaganda, and by early April, the network’s stars were declaring that the crisis was over, with some even falsely claiming that the official COVID-19 death count was inflated.
Wholesale opposition to COVID-19 safety measures
Fox hosts do not treat the virus as particularly dangerous, often downplaying or ignoring the U.S.’s COVID-19 death toll. That made it easy for them to make an ideological pivot in the early months of the pandemic, relentlessly fighting a wide array of measures intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus and limit its devastating consequences on the grounds that they caused too much economic or social damage. As network hosts like Carlson explained, such policies were unnecessary because COVID-19 “just isn't nearly as deadly as we thought it was.”
The end of the initial phase of the U.S. pandemic response began with a Fox live-tweet. “You know that famous phrase, ‘The cure is worse than the disease’?” Fox host Steve Hilton asked on his March 22, 2020 broadcast. “That is exactly the territory we are hurtling towards.” His argument that stay-at-home orders were more destructive than the virus had become commonplace on the network, but this time, it caught the attention of the president.
A few hours later, Trump tweeted, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
Two days later, to the horror of public health experts, he told a Fox interviewer that he wanted the country “opened up” by Easter Sunday. Trump’s aides were able to restrain his Fox-fueled desire to reopen without ensuring widespread testing and contact tracing for a few more weeks. But in mid-April, as Fox heavily promoted right-wing protests aimed at overturning the restrictions, a watching Trump tweeted about the need to “LIBERATE” the states. The Trump administration’s “Stay at Home” guidelines ultimately expired at the end of April 2020.
But Fox’s opposition to COVID-19 safety measures went far beyond the likes of the stay-at-home orders seen in the early weeks of the pandemic. They have taken aim at a wide array of policies, including drastically increased coronavirus diagnostic testing capacity (“totally ridiculous”); contact tracing to identify infected people (a “new threat to our rights”); closures and other restrictions at high-risk locations like bars, restaurants, gyms, and hair salons (“authoritarian”); additional funding for state and local governments facing empty coffers due to the pandemic (“blue state bailouts”); and calls to voluntarily stay home rather than travel for holiday gatherings. They also called for a “rebellion” of civil disobedience aimed at ending such restrictions.
Carlson and Ingraham in particular helped turn mask usage into a culture war flashpoint, making false claims of masks’ ineffectiveness a frequent refrain on their programs. Notably, both hosts had initially acknowledged that masks worked, before flipping their views as public health experts and mainstream journalists called for diligent masking.
Fox's coverage produced a strong incentive for ambitious Republican governors to eliminate their states' COVID-19 safety measures as quickly as possible. When they rolled back those policies, they could count on favorable coverage and airtime on the network to proclaim their successes, giving them a national audience and earning the support of the network's GOP kingmakers.
Fox propagandists targeted experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, urging their dismissal over their support for COVID-19 safety measures. Instead, they propped up a motley crew of dissidents, loons, and conspiracy theorists who sympathized with their more lax approach to the pandemic.
None gained more public influence than Scott Atlas, a radiologist and right-wing think tanker with no prior expertise in infectious diseases or pandemic response who nonetheless became a frequent and dishonest presence downplaying the risk of the coronavirus on Fox’s programming beginning in spring of 2020. Those appearances reportedly “caught Trump’s attention,” resulting in Atlas’ appointment to the White House coronavirus task force that August. In that role, Atlas advocated for allowing the virus to spread in order to reach “herd immunity,” helping to ensure a catastrophic death toll in the winter months of that year, when vaccines were just weeks away from deployment.
Promoting drugs that don’t fight COVID-19
Fox hosts, even as they diminished the risks posed by the coronavirus, nonetheless offered their viewers alternatives to the COVID-19 safety measures that they decried. They lauded the purported effectiveness of a series of drugs, and urged their viewers to take them if they became infected. This effort apparently had some success, with one study finding new prescriptions for them were higher in counties that supported Trump in 2020. The problem is that those drugs don’t actually work against the virus.
In March 2020, just days after the Trump administration rolled out its initial “stay at home” guidelines, Fox hosts began pushing for an end to those policies and the “reopening” of the economy. As part of that effort, they zealously promoted chloroquine and its derivative hydroxychloroquine – drugs approved by the FDA to treat malaria, lupus, and arthritis – as treatment and prophylaxis for COVID-19. Touting vague anecdotes and dubious studies, the network promoted those drugs nearly 300 times over a single two-week period in late March and early April of 2020, even as experts maintained there was no definitive evidence that they were actually effective.
But Fox hosts eager for a “reopening” suggested this “miracle drug” was evidence that anyone infected with the virus could be easily treated, and denounced anyone standing in the way of its use.
Fox’s coverage captured the attention of its most powerful viewer. Then-president Trump began talking up hydroxychloroquine after the network began promoting its use, and tweeted in response to a segment he was watching that it could be “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine” and should “put in use IMMEDIATELY” to treat the virus. In response to Fox’s coverage -- and a White House meeting with Ingraham -- Trump pushed the FDA to authorize the off-label use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine as a COVID-19 treatments and reportedly pressured federal agencies to focus on the drugs as potential therapies.
If Fox had been correct that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for COVID-19, this would have been a huge victory not only for Fox, but for the world. But the network was wrong. Randomized clinical trials subsequently showed “no evidence of benefit for mortality or other outcomes” and the suggested dosing regimens are “unlikely to produce an antiviral effect,” as the FDA’s chief scientist Denise Hinton wrote in a June 2020 letter explaining why the FDA was pulling its authorization. Further studies have provided more proof that the drug doesn’t work against COVID-19.
The same cycle played out the following year.
During the summer of 2021, Fox hosts regularly touted ivermectin’s purported effectiveness as a COVID-19 treatment. Carlson hosted a guest who claimed that “the evidence is strong that ivermectin works both as a prophylactic and as a treatment if given early.” Ingraham called it a drug “used all over the world with some pretty good results.” Hannity plugged it as an “incredible therapeutic.” And Will Cain described it as one of “many, many promising treatments out there that can save lives.”
Again, if ivermectin had been an effective treatment, Fox’s promotion would have been a win for both the network and the public. But the World Health Organization, European regulators, the ivermectin manufacturer Merck, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the FDA had all warned against its use against COVID-19, citing a lack of evidence that it works. A major study purportedly demonstrating ivermectin’s effectiveness was retracted over concerns that it relied upon fabricated data. Instead of protecting their viewers from the coronavirus, Fox had left them vulnerable to a familiar right-wing con.
Then in January 2022, federal agencies removed two monoclonal antibody therapies from the list of approved therapies for treating COVID-19 and stopped distributing them – with manufacturers’ approvals – after finding that they were ineffective against the dominant omicron variant. But Hannity and Ingraham rallied to the support of the ineffective treatments, decrying “Biden's medical authoritarianism” for depriving the public of “lifesaving COVID therapeutics.”
Fox was giving its viewers something they could do in lieu of supporting the COVID-fighting strategies that public health experts preferred and the network’s propagandists opposed. Rather than supporting the loathed “stay at home” measures in the pandemic’s first year, Fox viewers thought they could take hydroxychloroquine if they were infected with the virus. Ivermectin and monoclonal antibodies, meanwhile, became substitutes for the COVID-19 vaccines deployed during the pandemic’s second year.
The anti-vax abomination
As President Joe Biden took office in January 2020, the U.S. was suffering its deadliest months of the pandemic. The nation recorded 4,300 deaths on Inauguration Day, after cold weather, holiday travel, and relaxed safety protocols triggered a massive spike in cases. But hope was on the way – just weeks before, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorizations to mRNA vaccines for the coronavirus developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna after finding that they were safe and remarkably effective, particularly in preventing serious cases of COVID-19.
Fox hosts could have used their propaganda megaphone to encourage their viewers to get vaccinated – indeed, they had a moral responsibility to do so in order to preserve the health of the audience that trusted only them.
It should not have been a difficult sell: The vaccines had been developed and approved in record time under their beloved Trump’s administration, and the former president and Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch were among the first people on the planet to get shots.
The hosts could have trumpeted the effectiveness of the drugs, constantly and directly urged viewers to take them, received the vaccine on-air themselves, and even bashed the Biden administration for their slow initial rollout and the lengthy wait before granting them full approval. If Fox’s propagandists felt the need to pump out conspiracy theories, they could have questioned why the Biden administration wasn’t doing enough to get vaccine shots in Republican arms.
But that isn’t what happened. Instead, facing unusually stiff ratings competition from further right rivals at the time, Fox decided to pander to anti-vaxxers.
For more than a year, Fox’s biggest stars have waged a nightly sabotage campaign against the vaccination effort. They and their guests regularly suggest the vaccines may not work, stoke baseless fears about their safety, use incendiary rhetoric about their deployment, and denounced door-to-door campaigns to urge residents to get vaccinated as akin to the tactics of the Gestapo.
Carlson emerged as perhaps the nation’s foremost coronavirus vaccine skeptic, using his massive platform to argue that the vaccines are less effective and more dangerous than advertised and that his viewers should be deeply concerned about the campaign to get the public to take them.
Ingraham’s primetime show delves into many of the same themes and she is particularly focused on suggesting that the vaccines are useless by mocking prominent people who were infected despite being vaccinated. And Hannity briefly received some unearned plaudits for simply saying that he “believe[s] in the science of vaccination,” but wildly backpedaled in the face of a right-wing backlash and drastically increased his promotion of anti-vaccine talking points.
A handful of Fox employees have told their viewers the truth about the vaccines. But their statements were overwhelmed by a constant drumbeat which extends far beyond Fox’s primetime block. Media Matters found that over a two-week period last summer, 57% of the network’s segments about vaccines included claims that either undermined or downplayed immunization efforts. We also determined that Fox aired at least one claim undermining the vaccination efforts on all but two days from April through September of 2021.
It was easy to predict where Fox’s stand against vaccination would lead: Its viewers would believe the network’s misinformation about the vaccines and refuse to take the life-saving shots. That is precisely what happened, and deaths have concurrently soared in Republican parts of the country.
Having successfully driven down support for voluntarily taking the vaccine, Fox pivoted to sabotaging efforts by companies, universities, and government agencies to mandate their use. Such requirements, they claimed, amounted to a declaration of war against the unvaccinated by authoritarian elites. And they lionized people who refused to get vaccinated in the face of those rules as culture war heroes, hosting such individuals dozens of times. But those Fox heroes were disposable – when one of them died of COVID-19 in January, his passing went unmentioned on the network that had touted his story.
This campaign against life-saving drugs is ongoing. When I returned from three months of parental leave last month, I found that nothing had changed.
Why did they do it? Why did Fox hosts risk the lives of their viewers by slandering life-saving drugs, even as evidence mounted that they were killing their viewers?
It wasn’t a matter of principle – more than 90% of Fox’s staff is vaccinated, and the network implemented its own vaccine requirement without its hosts making a peep.
It was cash. They sold out their viewers for money. As a Fox insider explained, the anti-vax commentary is “great for ratings,” and that’s what matters to the network’s employees. It matters to them whether their viewers tune it. It doesn’t matter to them if they die.